A young hero takes on Tencent — phrase of the week

Business & Technology

A young man called out Tencent for abusive work practices and became a hero on Chinese social media. Watch out for him, cautioned one commenter, using an old Cantonese saying.

Illustration of two people with Tencent in background
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng.

Our phrase of the week is:

No one should bully a young person who is poor

莫欺少年穷

mò qī shàonián qióng

Last week, a young employee at Tencent became an internet sensation (in Chinese) after standing up to his bosses for their glorification of brutal 996 (or worse) work practices at the tech company. The phrase 996, or 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, is the legendary work routine of employees at Chinese tech companies.

Zhāng Yìfēi 张义飞, a 25-year-old programmer, was given a “business breakthrough award” (业务突破奖) after working 20-hour days in a team at Tencent that was rolling out a new feature for a productivity app. The accolade was announced in a group chat with hundreds of members of the product development department at Tencent.

In response to this “honor,” Zhang wrote in the group:

Is it really necessary to ask your programmers to work more than 20 hours straight just to meet your needs? When arranging the work of your team, did you even consider their well-being?

是不是非得让开发人员加这20多个小时的班,才能让这个版本满你们的意? 你们做任务排期的时候到底有没有考虑过手下人的死活?

He then went on to say he would hand in his notice the following day so he could have a stress-free Chinese New Year holiday. Tencent’s management was quick to react, saying that no one should be expected to put their health at risk for their work. But social media users were not convinced, sarcastically commenting that Tencent’s slick crisis PR machine was very effective, but there was little chance the company’s overtime culture would change.

Zhang was praised for standing up to the tech giant. One comment stood out:

Brother, you are impressive. No one should bully a young person who is poor. Go out and start your own business, and eventually you can take on Tencent.

兄弟牛逼,莫欺少年穷,出去后创业,到时候干死腾讯

Background and translation

The phrase 莫欺少年穷 mò qī shàonián qióng is a proverb originally from Cantonese. It translates as “No one should bully a young person who is poor.”

The full proverb is:

宁欺白须公,莫欺少年穷,终须有日龙穿凤,唔信一世裤穿窿

níng qī bái xū gōng, mò qī shàonián qióng, zhōng xū yǒu rì lóng chuān fèng, wú xìn yīshì kù chuān lóng

It tells us: “It is better to bully an old man than to bully a young person who is poor. That youngster may one day fly and become a phoenix, and their clothes will not be full of holes forever.”

This should not be confused with the colloquial Chinese phrase 自古英雄出少年 zìgǔ yīngxióng chū shàonián — “Ever since ancient times, heroes are youngsters.” This is about the energy and vigor of youths who can make a difference despite their young age. By contrast, “Don’t bully a young person who is poor” has a negative connotation, a warning to adults against underestimating youngsters at their peril.

In other words, as the Cantonese puts it, young people can achieve anything, and their elders may sooner or later regret mistreating them.


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Andrew Methven